Comment: Progress with Ottawa but challenges persist
In early May, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced an agreement in principle for the formation of an Indigenous federal fire marshal’s office, based on a report submitted by the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC).
AFAC officials have been asked why we worked tirelessly to reach this objective, and how the office will help First Nations communities. Simple questions can be addressed with simple answers. But fire prevention and protection in First Nations communities is a complex issue, and understanding the myriad nuances requires the willingness to learn all the relevant factors.
Charles Dickens captured portions of the answer in his famous quote from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” As the AFAC and our national fire partners have made steps to improve Indigenous fire services, we are realizing how far we still have to go. The two cities analogy is also applicable when comparing levels of fire service between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Indigenous and Northern Affairs uses the term “comparable service” as a benchmark to identify service levels and measure gaps.
For example, territorial fire marshals have the responsibility to support service delivery to all communities – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – but provincial fire marshals and commissioners have no obligation to provide services to Indigenous communities. Fire marshals and fire commissioners indicated to the AFAC that they readily provide ad hoc support to Indigenous communities, but without the adequate resources and associated authorities, this support does not help to create or support comparable fire services.
AFAC conducted research over the last year with the Canadian Council of Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, and the National Fire Prevention Association. In-person interviews were conducted with fire marshals and commissioners from each province and territory to develop a report that would help define programs and services for an Indigenous fire marshal’s office.
This initiative is one component of four strategic pillars defined by the AFAC: fire prevention, legislative standards, fire-service standards and national co-ordination of Indigenous fire and emergency services. These priorities were adopted by Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) to form the joint AFAC-INAC national fire protection strategy. While the Indigenous federal fire marshal’s office fits well into the fourth pillar, it supports other key elements including fire prevention, standards for smoke alarms, national incident data reporting, and enhancing INAC policy for level-of-service standards.
The implementation of a national Indigenous Fire Protection Act will provide key support to the office. AFAC has committed to working with Indigenous political leaders to improve understanding, seek input, and garner support for this initiative. Unlike the provinces, there is no requirement on reserves to meet building or fire safety codes. As we move to comparable levels of service, we recognize that there is a range of department types: from small, rural, Indigenous fire departments that struggle with budgets and volunteer levels; to urban, paid departments in First Nations communities that have sustainable local economies and support robust fire services.
The next phase is to work with Ottawa to design programs to be delivered through the Indigenous fire marshal’s office that will fill gaps, such as national training and equipment standards, minimum levels of fire prevention services, standards for fire inspections, and new construction codes.
The most critical role of the office will be to provide stable, ongoing resource to support the evolution and enhanced capacity for Indigenous communities. Currently, regional First Nations emergency service organizations are funded year to year. This means that programs and services (including funding levels) can be influenced by each Indigenous and Northern Affairs region, creating inequities and the inability to build on long-term initiatives.
As Dickens’ famous quote goes on to say, “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” This mirrors the situation of fire services in Indigenous communities. However, reaching comparable service levels will make it the best of times.
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